Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fleming's Steakhouse - Walnut Creek, Ca

Walnut Creek is something of a wasteland for fine dining. In the same way that most of Beverly Hills is a wasteland. It's style over substance, opulence over quality, and big cushy chairs over properly cooked meat. Which I guess is merely a fine-tuning of my previous assertion of opulence over quality. You get my point.

There are a couple spots in Walnut Creek worth dropping in on to be sure: Va De Vi, primarily, and I've heard good reports on Sushi Grove though I've never been. And there're a couple outposts of Berkeley establishments like Crepes A Go Go and Plearn Thai that are good for a sure thing on a Thursday afternoon (like that one girl who lived on the next floor up in your dorm).

So I was skeptical when my friend proposed we go out to the newly-opened Walnut Creek branch of Fleming's Prime Steakhouse. It's OSI's (the management group behind Outback and Roy's, amongst a few other names in restaurant chains) upstart challenger to high-end steakhouse chains like Morton's and Ruth's Chris. I'm not really a "steakhouse" guy anyway--I'm not a big meat eater, barely eat beef at all, and generally speaking really like fish and vegetables--and Walnut Creek is, well, I already talked about Walnut Creek. But Fleming's was open late, seemed to have a shit tonne of wine, and I was wearing a blazer and this was Friday night.

Color me surprised. Surprised, I believe, is a darker shade of taupe. Fleming's was quite good, even excellent in a lot of ways.

Given the sheer quantity of meat served at steakhouses, I question the need for appetizers and salads at all, but then I remembered that diners at Chicago power lunches are, literally, twice my size. We (me, girlfriend Charlie, C, and newguy Ross--heretofore known as nR) skipped appetizers and jumped straight to wine. Fleming's has an impressive and varied wine list, with selections varying drastically from location to location. Besides the usual California Cabs, an array of wines from California and afar (including selections from Germany, Portugal, and South Africa). To celebrate Friday (and blazers) we got a bottle of the Roederer Estate Brut Rose. That's an excellent bottle of wine and widely available. Look for it.

Fleming's offers 100 wines on their standard list, all available by the glass. The reserve wine bottle list offers selections ranging from typical premium wines to some of the best cult vineyards from the best cult wineries.

So here was the only significantly weird thing--Fleming's serves their sparkling in what're essentially graduated cylinders (all that's missing is "one tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor written down the side," quipped C). While they're definitely striking, they also feel out of place next to the elegant stemware set on the table, and also wholly inappropriate for drinking champagne--they don't highlight the bubbles, provide no stem to hold the glass, and force the drinker to knock back the glass as if doing a shot of Goldschlager to drink the last contents of the glass.

So food. I ordered the double-cut pork chop, Charlie had the double airline chicken breast, C had the scallops, and nR had the petite filet. We also ordered sides of creamed spinach and roasted garlic mashed potatoes.

My pork chop was the best restaurant pork chop I've ever had. Thick and cooked through, it remained incredibly moist. I've had single-cut chops with significant pink remaining at gourmet ghetto establishments that were bone-dry compared to this chop. The mustard-cider-apple-celery root oven sauce was almost too sweet, but worked well with the thick chop.

Girlfriend Charlie's chicken was moist and very tender, baked with an aromatic shallot white-wine sauce. Also quite good. C's seared sea scallops with puff pastry and vegetable saute was simple and tasty, everything cooked properly. nR's petite filet was fork-tender, cooked only slightly past the requested medium-rare, and flavorful. The side dish of creamed spinach was very good, though Fleming's uses sauteed whole spinach instead of the more traditional chopped spinach, lending a slightly more stringy and fibrous texture to the dish. The mashed potato side dish had an excellent texture, but the roasted garlic flavor in the butter tasted a little stale.

Wine choices for entrees was a bottle of Zilliken Riesling for the ladies and the Qupe Syrah for the gentlemen. Not your typical steakhouse wine choices, no?

Desserts were typical but well-made, a fruit crisp was a bit too sweet for my tastes but the cheesecake had a great texture and good flavor.

Service at Fleming's was spot-on. Staff was well-trained and well-versed in fine-dining basics and corporate protocol. Fleming's protocol did not seem as intrusive as other corporate restaurant's spiel, simply offering a basic introduction to the menu and common ordering procedures. Wine and water was refilled attentively, silverware changed appropriately, and used plates cleared with a scary ninja-like silence. On more than one occasion I noticed something had been cleared without me even noticing. Restrooms were clean and stylish, napkin was refolded upon return.

The restaurant itself has a contemporary feel to it--sure it's dark and leathery, but not in a stuffy 1950's sort of way. Accents are elegant and stylish and felt a helluva lot more modern than most restaurants of this ilk.

Fleming's corporate seems to have a good thing going. I'm not a steakhouse regular, but it sounds like from others that the quality is at least on par with other high-end steakhouse chains in terms of food and excels in service and wine selection--particularly in how far flung Fleming's ranges in geography and varietals on its list.

If you're looking for excellent meat, good wine, (relatively speaking) reasonable prices, and great service in a restaurant that won't make you feel like you're ninety-two, Fleming's has the HFF-endorsement.

Is this the first ever for a chain restaurant?

Maybe, I can't remember.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse
1685 Mt. Diablo Blvd.
Walnut Creek, Ca 94596
(and many other locations nationwide)
Reservations: 925-287-0297

Friday, September 21, 2007

Marginal Profits: Redux

I've been informed by a few different people that my already dismal restaurant financial projections are actually substantially over-optimistic.

According to a chef friend of mine, food cost is usually averaged to ~30% of an item's price.

Additionally, I underestimated non-labor overhead quite a bit. Shit gets broken a lot. Utilities and maintenance costs are also much higher.

I knew my floor team was a skeleton crew but it's apparently an unfeasibly small staff for a busy night.

I also failed to fully consider the level of capital equipment that goes into opening a restaurant.

So what does this all mean? It means that a successful restaurant actually operates at a 4%-6% profit margin and most restaurants that stay open operate on a mere 1%-2% profit margin.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Marginal Profits

Let's all agree on some basic tenets:

1. Capitalism is the primary socioeconimic system of the United States of America.

2. In capitalism, the means of production are held by private individuals either individually or collectively in corporations.

3. These means of production are operated for a profit and those profits are based upon how that means of production (business) functions within the greater market economy around it.

4. Most restaurants are businesses, not charities or state-run food banks.

Do we agree? Yes? Good.

Moving on.

People don't like to feel ripped off. This is understandable. However, if the douche-baggery that occurs on Yelp! is any indication, most people (or at least most people who post on restaurant review websites) don't have much of a sense of how restaurants operate financially and what you're really paying for when you go out to eat. The most common complaint (after "the service was bad") is "the food was overpriced."

Let me explain.

First, a restaurant's expenses and how they affect prices:

1. Food Cost. This is what it sounds like. How much does the food that is served cost the restaurant. Included in this is how much food is wasted. For instance, any restaurant of any calibre and esteem doesn't keep ingredients for very long. Food has to be staffed and/or thrown away after a certain number of days. Another factor: sure a whole salmon might cost X dollars per pound, but how much usable meat comes from a whole salmon and how does that effect the real cost? Just like the Indians were purported to do, restaurants do what they can to use every part of the ingredients that they are sourcing.

Often a restaurant has little flexibility on food cost. In the hyper-competitive California Cuisine world, ingredient source and quality is all. As a result, the top farms have more business and there is more competition--and with the rise in the popularity and availability of farmers' markets, that competition comes from the end consumer as well, not just other restaurants--therefore they're able to raise their prices. And as their prices go up, so do the prices at other farms. Additionally, restaurants with massive purchasing power like the French Laundry and Chez Panisse can push their resources around and snap up the top product when they want or need it because they can pay virtually any price. Think of these places like oil-rich Arab sheikhs. For instance, a couple months ago no other restaurant in the Bay Area could get any fresh organic black-eyed peas because Chez Panisse had bought up everything available for that week.

Food cost at a Bay Area fine-dining restaurant makes up anywhere from 5%-50% of the menu price. Restaurants try to make their food cost average out at about 20-25%. If a menu item gets close to 50% food cost then most restaurants, depending on their overhead, are actually taking a loss on the sale of that item.

2. Labor. It takes a lot of people to run a restaurant.

Let's look at a basic Friday night dinner for a medium sized (120 seat) restaurant. This is an eight-hour shift (3-11PM) for most kitchen staffs. This is a bit shorter for the front-of-house staff, but not by much. You have one chef. He's making anywhere from $3K-$10K a month. Let's throw him in the equation at $40/hour. And then at least one sous-chef at $22/hour. You'll have one "advanced" line cook or supervisor level line cook at $15/hour. And then throw in two line cooks making $10/hour. Can't forget the dishwasher making $8/hour. So you have a total kitchen wage of $105/hour. That's a skeleton crew for a busy Friday night. And that's on the lower-end of average for wages.

Other staff. You have six waiters/bartenders, two bussers, a barback, and a food runner all making around $7 hour. You probably have your GM making the equivalent of $25/hour and then a host/floor manager/wine director making $15/hour. So there's another $110/hour in wages for your front-of-house.

Total payroll, $215/hour. Total payroll for an eight-hour night: $1720 (give or take a couple hundred). Divide that by 250 covers (about what a restaurant of this size will do on its busiest Friday) and roughly $6-$7 of each diner's meal goes toward paying the staff.

Yikes. No wonder restaurants push wine and cocktails so heavily.

And remember, this is basic bare-bones staffing for a busy fine-dining restaurant.

3. Non-labor overhead. Here's the catch-all for everything else related to restaurant operations. First there's rent, which varies heavily from location to location. Running a restaurant in Nob Hill is a helluva lot more expensive then running one in Antioch. Some (very few) restaurants own their own space. Others have cut sweetheart deals with their landlords because the property owners want a restaurant in the space or the landlord gets a share of the profits in exchange for a break on the rent. Regardless, all restaurants are paying a rent or mortgage of some kind.

And then you have utilities. Restaurants use a lot of energy. Most of a restaurant's operations involve either cooling or heating things, whether that's food, wine, coffee, or surly customers who are inevitably too hot or too cold. A commercial kitchen has some serious energy-using equipment running, in many cases, 24 hours a day.

Don't forget cleaning! Those designer banquette cushions don't clean flabby Berkeley ass germs off themselves. Most cleaning in restaurants is sub-contracted to linen companies, kitchen equipment cleaners, and janitorial contractors. $$$.

What else.... Oh yeah, breaking shit. Restaurants break shit all the time. Most of the time that shit is just a wine glass or two. Doesn't sound like much, but breaking $20-$30 in glassware a night adds up fast. Silverware also disappears into trash cans, dishwashers, and customers' pockets. Sometimes the shit that's broken gets bigger. An entire rack of glasses gets dropped. A couple decanters crack. A $200 Burgundy shatters. Or--look out--something in the kitchen breaks.

And then there's promotion, advertising, accounting, management, insurance, outreach, property depreciation, inventory control....

Unfortunately I don't have hard numbers for any of this stuff so there goes my chance of this article being published in The Economist.

But, this is starting to sound like a business no?

Jeremiah Tower's SF restaurant Stars, with famously high prices, also had famously insane overhead, and even $40 steaks couldn't keep it open. What's in its place now? Trader Vic's, a "fun" restaurant with godawful starch-heavy food and wicked expensive syrupy sweet drinks.

4. Profit. Not much left to go back to the owners at this point. Especially after the owners pay off their investors and the Mob. Presumably the owners are reinvesting a significant portion of their profits back into the restaurant for capital improvement and expansion, so how much money do the owners take home each year?

In most cases, nothing. Hopefully the restaurant makes enough to pay the owners a modest salary and then the rest of the profits pay off investors and fix the toilets.

To quote En Vogue: and now it's time for the breakdown:

In a typical restaurant with $25 entrees, $10 appetizers, $5-$7 desserts, and a full bar, the per-head sales average on a busy Friday will hover somewhere around $45, especially in Berkeley where it seems people are much more shy about purchasing drinks or multiple courses of food than in San Francisco. So how does that shake out?

Food cost: $10
Labor: $7
Non-labor overhead: $20 (this is merely an educated guess)
Profit (before dividends and reinvestment): $8

That's a profit margin hovering at 15-20%. Most comparable small retailers (clothing boutiques, antique stores, resale shops, skin and body care products) operate at a close to 50% profit margin. Bars operate at a 70+% profit margin.

Combine those limited profits with significant startup costs and it takes a goddamn long freakin' time before it starts making money. And as with any business model with marginal profits, you need to replicate replicate replicate before you can start seeing significant dollah dollah billz y'all.

So what do restaurants do to maximize profits? In many cases food becomes the loss-leader for wine, cocktails, and the experience. Restaurants depend on beverage sales (even coffee), where the profit margins are much much higher to make up for the losses in food cost and overhead. Restaurants try to operate with the minimum staff possible, which on inordinately busy nights can result in overtaxed waiters and a slower kitchen--though the limitation for a kitchen's speed is usually just as much about space as it is about personnel (you can only fit so many potatoes in the fryer and steaks on the grill).

Why are some restaurants cheaper than others? Often it comes down to ingredient quality and quantity. Frozen beef is perfectly fine (and cheap) for a sauce and rice-heavy stir fry, but it won't do for someone wanting a quality steak. Frozen pre-processed vegetables and canned soup stocks might work for certain places and certain times, but not for California fine-dining right now. Rice, pasta, beans, tortillas, bread, etc add low-cost bulk to dinners and can deceive diners into satiety. Some restaurants save money on payroll--if it's a family-owned operation everyone can share profits (and be exempt from many costly labor laws) without having to have a real payroll. These savings on overhead can also be procured by running your business from a taco truck instead of a pricey downtown storefront. Other restaurants might simply be operating as a no-profit front for illegal imports, drug dealing, and human trafficking.

So what does this all mean? It means that a restaurant is a business out there to provide goods and services in exchange for money. It also means that you're probably more likely to get "ripped off" (in terms of percentage of income going to the ownership) at a mediocre Indian chaat house than you are at an expensive restaurant. Especially when you factor in the profits the owners make off their sex slaves.

In conclusion.

If you don't want to participate in the dining-for-profit system, that's fine. But don't bitch about it. You're probably wrong. If every restaurant that people on Yelp! bitched about being "overpriced" was in fact overpriced, none of those restaurants would still be open because nobody would go to them, you flaming retards. Think about it just for a moment. Restaurants aren't a cartel and there are plenty of quality dining options across the price spectrum that are available. If people really thought they were being gouged by a restaurant, they wouldn't go there after a while. It happens all the time.

So keep being smugly happy with your contempt for nice things and keep enjoying your taco truck dinners.

And your diarrhea.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Farina - San Francisco, Ca

Hey hey check it out! I made it to a new restaurant before it was reviewed in the Chronicle! Sweet!

The big question mark that sticks out at me about Farina is.... do we really need another fucking Italian restaurant? Especially in San Francisco. Especially in the Mission. I mean, really? Really?


Admittedly Farina claims a "Genoese" bent, with waiters in jeans (which comes from the original French word, bleu de Genes or the blue of Genova for those of you keeping score at home) and t-shirts bedecked with Genoa's flag.

Fine. So it's northern Italian. Ligurian. A rose by any other name. Whatever. It's Italian. Antipasti, giant plates of meat, and some pasta. Whoopdifreakindodiddlyoo. Fuck Italian food and the oily uninteresting horse it road in on.

That being said, Farina was pretty damn good.

First, props to Farina's extensive, deep, and well-priced wine lists. Almost entirely Italian, sure. But I like Italian wine. Extensive selection of wines by the glass, quarter-liter, and half-liter carafe as well. Half-liter's a good amount of wine. More wine should be sold like that at restaurant. Let it be done.

First up girlfriend Charlie and I had the roasted vegetables antipasti. Fennel, eggplant, onion, and tomatoes oven-roasted and served room temperature. Flavors were nice and full and the vegetables weren't swimming in oily oily Italian olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were great.

Pasta course. I had the taglietlle with boar sugo. The pasta was nutty and al dente. The sugo was rich, tasty, but loaded with salt. Like, retarded salty. One of the saltiest dishes I've had. Charlie's handkerchief pasta with walnut-gorgonzola pesto was excellent.

I'm not a fan of Italian restaurant entrees. I know this is largely because of how American Italian restaurants attempt to shoehorn Italian-style dining into the established conventions of most American dining. We try to make entrees and appetizers out of a dining style that favors multiple single-item courses. I like a diverse well-articulated main dish of multiple flavors more so than a dish of protein, sauce, and a couple vegetable accents.

But Farina's entrees were good. I had yellowfin tuna seared very rare with fresh heirloom tomatoes and fresh burrata with balsamic reduction. Simple and fresh. Charlie had the red snapper with with something I can't remember and can't place because Farina doesn't have a goddamn website yet. But it was good.

Dessert proved a highlight. Gianduia-filled fried tortelli dusted with sugar and served with three sauces--a dark roasty espresso sauce, a bright concentrated blackberry sauce, and a forgettable orange sauce. Crispy, warm, chocolate-y, hazelnut-y, and taste-y.

Farina's space is sleek and stylish, a little bit over-conceived for my tastes. Outdoor tables jut out into the neighborhood, a private dining room sits upstairs near the uber-chic restrooms, and apparently, much to neighbors' chagrin, Farina's going to start rooftop dining as well. We'll see if that happens.

Service was present and attentive. Not overly engaging or solicitous, but definitely there. Bussers were great, keeping tables clean and reset between courses, circulating with fresh bread and keeping water glasses full.

So it's a nice restaurant with well-made food, stylish space, excellent pastas, and great wine list. I think it's rather characterless and pointless in the over-saturated Italian restaurant scene, and if it keeps making enemies in the neighborhood Farina could be short-lived. If you like northern Italian it's probably worth a detour.

3560 18th St
San Francisco, Ca 94110
Reservations 415-565-0360 or